How Michigan and Michigan State Upsets Shake Up the 2013-14 Big Ten Title Race

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How Michigan and Michigan State Upsets Shake Up the 2013-14 Big Ten Title Race
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Playing at home against teams with a combined conference record of 12-10, Michigan and Michigan State shouldn't have had any problem improving to 11-2 in the Big Ten, padding their lead in the standings and climbing higher into the AP Top 25.

But they both had a ton of trouble. And now the Big Ten regular-season title race is almost a free-for-all.

First and foremost, kudos to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Road wins in the Big Ten are far from easy to come by. Prior to this weekend, they were a combined 4-7 in conference road games, with those wins coming against sub-.500 teams Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue.

Nebraska committed just five turnovers in its shocking win over Michigan State. Wisconsin only turned it over twice against Michigan. Nebraska's Terran Petteway and Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky combined to score 48 points without committing a single turnover.

Scoring a ton of points without making any mistakes isn't exactly a sustainable blueprint for success, but it sure does work when it happens.

As good as Nebraska and Wisconsin played on Sunday, we're left to wonder what is going wrong in the state of Michigan.

When the Spartans and Wolverines squared off on Jan. 25, they were a combined 13-0 in Big Ten play. Michigan was riding an eight-game winning streak, and it had been 11 wins since Michigan State's last loss.

The Big Ten-leading Wolverines delivered a beauty of a game, leaving little doubt that they were the class of the conferenceespecially with Ohio State and Wisconsin each already saddled with several losses.

But Michigan and Michigan State are a combined 4-6 since the calendar flipped to February. What should have been a two-horse race has evolved into quite the traffic jam.

What in the world happened?

For Michigan State, injuries are the gift that keep on giving.

Branden Dawson has been out with a broken hand for the past several weeksduring which time the Spartans have lost four out of seven games. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling have each missed several of those games and played others at less than 100 percent.

With those players missing in the lineup, the weight on Gary Harris' shoulders has been more than he can handle. Shooting slumps are bound to happen throughout the course of the season, but Harris is shooting just 24.4 percent from three-point range over Michigan State's last six games.

People have been saying all season that a full-strength Michigan State would be the best team in the country. Who knows if we'll ever find out if that's true?

Dawson should be back within a week, and both Payne and Appling should continue to get stronger as they recover from their injuries. But with the luck the Spartans have had over the past two months, that just means that Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice are about due for an injury.

Fixing Michigan's woes isn't nearly as easy as waiting for players to get healthy.

Between Dec. 7 and Jan. 30, Michigan won 11 out of 12 games. Nik Stauskas averaged 18.6 points and 4.2 assists per game during that stretch, tallying at least 12 points and three assists in every gamesave for the loss to Arizona, in which he only had two assists.

Over the Wolverines' last five games, however, Stauskas has averaged just 10.2 points and 2.2 assists per game. In the three losses, he averaged 9.0 points and 1.0 assists.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

As ESPN's Eamonn Brennan wrote last week, there's a formula for stopping Stauskas—which means there's a formula for stopping Michigan. For the longest time, teams were using tall guards or small forwards to defend the 6'6" Stauskas, but he was simply too quick for them, getting open shots whenever he wanted.

Now that teams are defending him with shorter, quicker guards like Ben Brust, Yogi Ferrell and Mike Gesell, he's having a much more difficult time finding open space. Instead of forcing contested shots, he basically stopped shooting for a while. Stauskas averaged 11.25 field-goal attempts during the aforementioned 12-game stretch but averaged just six shots per game over the next four.

If Michigan is going to get back on track, Stauskas will need to listen to Coach Beilein's pleas for him to take more shots.

Michigan's forward duo of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford has also failed to play up to par.

Back when Michigan was the hottest team in the country, Morgan and Horford were combining to average 37.4 minutes per game and 14.4 points per 40 minutes. In Michigan's last three losses, they have still averaged 37.3 minutes per game, but their point production has dropped to just 6.1 points per 40 minutes.

If the Big Ten tournament started today, who would win?

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Can either team right the ship before Iowa, Wisconsin or even Ohio State can make a run at first place?

The remaining schedules should be enough for the Big Ten regular-season title to end up in the state of Michigan.

Outside of next Sunday's rematch with the Spartans, the Wolverines have it pretty easy the rest of the way. Their schedule merely consists of road games against Purdue and Illinois and home games against Indiana and Minnesota.

Not one of those four teams currently has a .500 record in Big Ten play. If Michigan can get back to being one of the most efficient offenses in the country, those four games should be about as close as it gets to cakewalks in the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, with a home game against Iowa and a road game against Ohio State, Michigan State's schedule is considerably more daunting than Michigan's, but nothing that a healthy Spartans team couldn't handle.

As such, it's tough to envision both teams losing at least two games and opening the door for Iowa to steal the regular-season crown, but it's certainly a more interesting race than it was 24 hours ago.

If nothing else, the Big Ten tournament is shaping up to be more of a crapshoot than it has been in recent memory.

 

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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